Following more than a year of recovery from the "biggest school cheating scandal in U.S. history," Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis told a group of educators, business and civic leaders on Aug. 14 that the system is now "poised to succeed."
Davis, who joined the system in the wake of the school test cheating investigation in 2011 that implicated 187 educators in more than 50 schools, said that the system is now "on the right path."
"Things will be better, not just for a few, but for all of our students," he told the audience gathered Tuesday morning at the Cecil B. Day Chapel at The Carter Center.
Davis, who has agreed to remain beyond his interim status, said he is committed to implement plans and programs that will "build a culture of excellence" across all operations: students, teachers, administrators, staff and facilities.
Davis was introduced by young James Bond, a fourth-grader at West Manor Elementary School. Bond, nephew of Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond, introduced himself as "My name is Bond, James Bond." To the audience's delight, Young Master Bond went on to say that he was a straight A student and had perfect attendance last year.
His father Jeffrey Bond and Principal Dr. Reginald Lawrence looked on with pride. He told the audience they could get more information on him and Davis on the Internet. "You can Google him, too."
When Davis began his report, he praised the young student by saying he wasn't sure he could top his presentation.
Davis said it has been a busy year, and that he is optimistic that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools will restore the school system's full accreditation. He said that the system has learned "powerful lessons" that will propel everyone forward.
Davis recognized the school board and several educators including Elisha R. Gray, a special education teacher at Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School, 2011-2012 Teacher of the Year and a state finalist for 2013; and Cascade Elementary School Principal Alfonso Jessie Jr., who has been with the school system since 1966. He called them a source of inspiration for the system.
Noting the flap over school closings and new bus schedules, Davis said parental engagement is one of the priority areas of the system moving forward. He admitted that many decisions had to be made and that some may have gotten ahead of adequate communications.
"Now that we have begun to stabilize the school system, we can focus on the real work of educating students," Davis said. He also expressed his appreciation to students, parents, educators, and other business and civic leaders for their support of the system.
He promised a "more consistent, aggressive and strategic focus across the entire school system" to improve student achievement. Davis pointed out that the performance problems in the school system are wide and deep. He said the system has only "a small subset of high performing schools," and it will take a lot of work over a long period of time to see improvement. Dramatic improvements are two to three years away, he said.
He said his review of the school system showed more than 200 initiatives had been attempted over the years to improve student performance, but they only worked "episodically, periodically and nothing worked systemically."
His review "revealed a disturbing trend," he said. We saw a tale of separate school systems. We created those disparities."
School Board Chair Reuben R. McDaniel III, praised Davis for being an accomplished leader who has brought them past the cheating scandal and its fallout.
"He is doing great things," McDaniel said in greeting the audience. "He has turned around operations... and everyone is "united in building a high-performing school system."
He said the system will work to improve all schools with a focus on four areas:
excellence, equity, ethics and engagement.
"Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to be better," Davis said quoting NBA coach and executive Pat Riley.
Davis promised to invest more in professional development for teachers, encourage more collaboration among teachers and schools and use more sophisticated measures to increase student achievement.
He said he has placed administrators in the central office to monitor and maximize performance across the system. He said the school closings – seven – were not just about saving money, but also reallocating resources to meet other needs.
"We will narrow the disparities, not by bringing down the top, but by bringing up the bottom," he said.
"The integrity of innocent children should never be called to questions," Davis said. "We will have zero tolerance for unethical behavior." He said the every school has ethics advocates.
Of the 178 employees implicated in the test cheating scandal, 135 are no longer in the system. The have either resigned, retired or been terminated. He said 13 educators have been reinstated. The disposition of about 25 remains to be determined, but as of July 1, none of them were on the payroll.
"We are ready to put this very sad episode behind us."